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FEATURE Noah Lolesio: 'I've experienced all the ups and downs of international footy'

Noah Lolesio: 'I've experienced all the ups and downs of international footy'
1 month ago

It’s maybe half an hour after the full-time bell at Canberra Stadium, and the last few Brumbies are still out on the field signing the last few autographs and posing for the last few selfies with the last few fans who didn’t miss the chance to grab their heroes, who had won through to a third straight Super Rugby Pacific semi-final.

They had halted the Highlanders’ challenge with a 15-0 second half to complete a four tries-to-one, 32-16 victory after a testing first period. And their reward for reaching the penultimate weekend of the competition? A six-day turnaround, a full day’s travel from Canberra to Auckland and a date with the Blues at Eden Park this Friday night.

But as we round the corner into the stadium tunnel, Noah Lolesio is just grateful.

“It’s just the relief, man,” he says after ACT – again, for the third straight year – became the last Australian team standing in the trans-Tasman competition.

“I’m a bit proud of the boys and how we fought after that first half. You know, there’s multiple problems within that first half and it was a real grind. The Highlanders are obviously a real classy team.

“They’re real physical and we had to match that tonight. So really relieved and proud of how we bounced back, especially in that second half.”

Andy Muirhead
Wing Andy Muirhead scored two tries as Brumbies overcame the Highlanders in Canberra (Photo Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Brumbies fans know this position all too well.

Two years ago at Eden Park, their team had got themselves back within a point of the Blues heading into the last two minutes of a semi-final. Former All Black lock Luke Romano picked up a loose ball and carried forward to where he was tackled, Brumbies openside Luke Reimer latching straight onto the ball in full view of referee Ben O’Keeffe, and with half a dozen team-mates pleading for the penalty to give them a shot at a winning kick.

O’Keeffe’s arm stayed down. It’s a moment imprinted into the brains of Brumbies fans and players alike.

Immediately after the siren on Saturday night in Canberra, when I mentioned that moment from 2022 to Reimer during a live radio interview, his face lit up in a big grin as he contemplated the prospect of exacting revenge.

“I’ll just have to latch on harder this time,” he said.

The immediate seconds after that unrewarded pilfer at Eden Park were chaotic. Reimer was cleaned out but the ball spilled loose – further highlighting that he had, in fact, won the ball – and with the Blues getting their hands on the ball only for the briefest moment, the Brumbies forced another turnover and launched another desperate attack well inside the Blues half.

I’ve only gone so far as a semi, a bunch of the boys have only gone so far as the semi-final as well. It’s a huge challenge, especially over there at Eden Park. But it would mean so much.

They carried three more times, making it to around 30m of the Blues line, before scrum-half Ryan Lonergan fired a pass to Lolesio outside the 10m line, but well and truly in the pocket.

His drop-goal attempt was sweetly struck, but was somehow stopped dead by the outstretched fingertips of prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi. Full-back Tom Banks cleaned up and made it back near halfway, the Blues won a counter-ruck, won a penalty, and that was that.

Hoskins Sotutu
The Blues prevailed 20-19 in their last semi-final meeting two years ago, despite ACT’s comeback (Photo John Cowpland/AFP via Getty Images)

Lolesio, who has just signed a year extension to his ARU deal, which will keep him in union until at least 2025,  flashes that same big grin in the Canberra Stadium tunnel as Reimer at the prospect of finding their Eden Park payback.

“Oh, it would be huge, mate,” he says. “You know, I’ve only gone so far as a semi, a bunch of the boys have only gone so far as the semi-final as well. It’s a huge challenge, especially over there at Eden Park. But it would mean so much.”

A good chunk of the Brumbies squad has played plenty of rugby together, but the closest they’ve come to silverware was losing a final of the National Rugby Championship to the Western Force in Perth, in the competition’s final season back in 2019.

“The main core of the squad has come through the pathways here, and that’s why seeing so many boys leaving this year, especially Darcy (Swain) and Connal (McInerney), that have been there from day one, even Jahrome (Brown), it’s gonna be huge,” Lolesio reflects.

“So we’re gonna have to do everything in our ability to get the job done this time and to send those guys off on a high.”

I’m just not putting as much pressure on myself, trying not to overplay my hand. Just, you know, catch, pass, catch, pass. Kick when it’s on, make my tackles and then knowing my natural game, so that if something appears in front of me, I’ll take it.

Lolesio spent last year’s Rugby World Cup on a “joker” contract at Toulon and believes he is playing with a lot more freedom this season as a result.

A few months in the south of France enjoying a relatively carefree environment, along with “a few croissants and pizzas – a few too many probably” with his surprise new mate, Welsh legend Alun Wyn Jones, has worked wonders for the 24-year-old.

“I’m just not putting as much pressure on myself, trying not to overplay my hand,” Lolesio explains. “Just, you know, catch, pass, catch, pass. Kick when it’s on, make my tackles and then knowing my natural game, so that if something appears in front of me, I’ll take it. And if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.

“So, I think it’s just loosening myself up a bit more and just playing footy. I’ve tried to take that approach this year and I feel like I’ve played pretty consistently so far.”

Alun Wyn Jones
Lolesio spent three months at Toulon with Alun Wyn Jones, who ended his career playing for the Barbarians against Wales in November (Photo Ian Cook – CameraSport via Getty Images)

He lights up again when speaking of the bond he developed with the former Wales captain, one – it quickly emerges – was borne out of necessity.

“He was like my older brother,” Lolesio laughs. “It was just me and him for the whole time because all the other international players were in the World Cup and we can only speak English!

“He invited me over to his house and stuff. And he’s a cracking bloke, hey. I just couldn’t believe I was hanging out with him, but he’s just such a down to earth person and he’s a great man.

“We spent a lot, probably too much time, together for my liking.”

He’s such a laid back person… I mean, what is he, the most capped international player? You couldn’t tell when you’re having a coffee with him because he’s pretty down to earth.

Days off on the Mediterranean coast sound rather delightful at the best of times, but for a young fly-half hanging with a genuine giant of the game, it proved a priceless learning opportunity.

“Oh yeah, I definitely tried to keep him young – I think he’s 40 years old or something,” Lolesio laughs again. “He’s such a laid back person. He said he’s learned a lot over his time. I mean, what is he, the most capped international player?

“You couldn’t tell when you’re having a coffee with him because he’s pretty down to earth like that. But he’s an awesome bloke and I always keep in contact with him here and there.

“I’m always mocking him about his Mimosa brand (of coffee rum liqueur), but yeah, it was awesome spending time with him.”

Stephen Larkham
Current head coach Stephen Larkham steered Brumbies to their last Super Rugby title in 2004 (Photo Nick Laham/Getty Images)

As he readies his team for another shot at a final, it was interesting to hear head coach and legendary former fly-half Stephen Larkham draw parallels last week to the Brumbies’ last Championship side of 2004.

While acknowledging it is almost impossible to compare eras given the way the game has evolved, Larkham said he could see similarities in how the current side do plenty of pre-game planning but make in-game adjustments on the field.

Lolesio agrees the Brumbies are now more open to playing on instinct rather than sticking to a rigid game-plan.

When you’ve got attacking weapons like Wrighty [Tom Wright] out the back, Tooley (Corey Toole), Andy (Muirhead), Lenny (Ikitau)… like, just give them the ball in space and let them have a go.

“Yeah, don’t get me wrong, we do a lot of review and have a lot of analysis, but at the end of the day, we just back each other on what we see in front of us and have a crack.

“Traditionally over the last few years, the Brumbies have been a real structured, set-piece dominated team and I feel like we’ve sort of got the freedom to dominate other areas and not just rely on a maul or scrum.

“And that is giving us the freedom, especially when you’ve got attacking weapons like Wrighty [Tom Wright] out the back, Tooley (Corey Toole), Andy (Muirhead), Lenny (Ikitau). Like, just give them the ball in space and let them have a go.”

Tom Wright
Tom Wright looks set to add to his 23 Wallabies caps after hitting top form in the current campaign (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/AFP via Getty Images)

Wright, certainly, seems to have reached that mostly unmeasurable but universally agreed level of ‘career-best form’ that appears to be making his return to the Wallabies No.15 jersey more likely with every new match highlight.

“He’s my second eyes out there, you know. I feel like this is the best I’ve seen Wrighty play,” Lolesio says. “His communication, his energy, his speed. He’s been unbelievable.

“If he’s there closest to the ball, I leave him there at first receiver and he can sort that out and I’ll look after him outside and vice versa.

“That’s sort of been the growth of the whole backline. It’s just giving everyone different looks and opportunities to attack.”

I’m not too fussed about it, to be honest. If it happens, then great. My approach to the game won’t change and that’s probably a good thing.

His own consistency is also putting Lolesio well and truly back in the Wallabies frame. While there is not much debate about his own strong form, the race to be Australia’s No.10 remains as open as perhaps it’s ever been in the professional era.

Only New South Wales fly-half Tane Edmed comes close to Lolesio in terms of goal-kicking accuracy and performance this year, yet he lost his starting place for the Waratahs by the end of their campaign.

Queensland have been very deliberate in managing Tom Lynagh’s progression, while the two 10s picked for last year’s World Cup, Melbourne Rebels’ Carter Gordon, who has just announced he’s off to NRL, and Ben Donaldson, now with the Western Force, have both gone through patchy periods. What new Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt thinks of it all is anyone’s guess.

For his part, Lolesio, who made his Test debut against New Zealand as a 20-year-old in 2020 and has won 20 caps, seems relaxed about the prospect of a recall.

Noah Lolesio
Lolesio’s form has put him in the frame for a Wallabies recall after being ignored by Eddie Jones (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

“Oh mate, I’ve experienced all the ups and downs of international footy at a very young age,” he says. “I’m not too fussed about it, to be honest. If it happens, then great. My approach to the game won’t change and that’s probably a good thing.

“At the end of day, it’s just up to Joe what he wants and how he wants to play. At the moment, my job is here with these boys trying to do a job next Friday in Auckland.”

Lolesio says his only conversation with Schmidt this year was before the season started – “just with contract stuff”- and there has been no contact since. Not that he’s worried.

“I prefer just to be focusing on this to be honest, knowing that if I do my job here, that will put me in the best position to hopefully play for further honours.”

Perhaps after that stint in France, a c’est la vie approach appears to suit Lolesio. Narrow the focus onto the Brumbies for now, and Wallabies recognition will take care of itself.

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Comments

20 Comments
j
john 39 days ago

The Brumbies are no chance until they give up their incessant cheating. It’s boring, it’s nauseating. No wonder they are struggling financially because who wants to go and watch that sort of rubbish. Not many obviously.

M
Mitch 39 days ago

Still can’t believe BOK fidb’t give the Brumbies the penalty he should have which would have potentially won the thrm that game.

Gotta say Brett, I’m disappointed about the start times for the weekend's games. There’s no way the NRL would move a game to accommodate a super rugby semi, so it’s sad to see super rugby being so accommodating.

M
Mzilikazi 40 days ago

Thanks for the article, Brett. I think key for the Brumbies in Auckland will be to start well. Win the toss and kick of high, hanging and deep. The force the Blues to exit as badly as possible. Don’t do a Reds, and concede a breakdown penalty on the first carry back, don’t even risk that happening. So kick deep rather than carry.

The Blues are good, but not, in my view, great. They have shown they can be rattled, can panic. Good luck to the Brumbies!

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